A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Nineteenth-century America

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Princeton University Press, 2002 - History - 430 pages
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A Traffic of Dead Bodies enters the sphere of bodysnatching medical students, dissection-room pranks, and anatomical fantasy. It shows how nineteenth-century American physicians used anatomy to develop a vital professional identity, while claiming authority over the living and the dead. It also introduces the middle-class women and men, working people, unorthodox healers, cultural radicals, entrepreneurs, and health reformers who resisted and exploited anatomy to articulate their own social identities and visions.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of the American medical profession: a proliferation of practitioners, journals, organizations, sects, and schools. Anatomy lay at the heart of the medical curriculum, allowing American medicine to invest itself with the authority of European science. Anatomists crossed the boundary between life and death, cut into the body, reduced it to its parts, framed it with moral commentary, and represented it theatrically, visually, and textually. Only initiates of the dissecting room could claim the privileged healing status that came with direct knowledge of the body. But anatomy depended on confiscation of the dead--mainly the plundered bodies of African Americans, immigrants, Native Americans, and the poor. As black markets in cadavers flourished, so did a cultural obsession with anatomy, an obsession that gave rise to clashes over the legal, social, and moral status of the dead. Ministers praised or denounced anatomy from the pulpit; rioters sacked medical schools; and legislatures passed or repealed laws permitting medical schools to take the bodies of the destitute. Dissection narratives and representations of the anatomical body circulated in new places: schools, dime museums, popular lectures, minstrel shows, and sensationalist novels.

Michael Sappol resurrects this world of graverobbers and anatomical healers, discerning new ligatures among race and gender relations, funerary practices, the formation of the middle-class, and medical professionalization. In the process, he offers an engrossing and surprisingly rich cultural history of nineteenth-century America.


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Michael "Sappol’s book “A traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th Century America” was the biggest disappointment of my 2012 reading. I confess to only reading the ... Read full review


The Mysteries of the Dead Body Death Embodiment and Social Identity
A Genuine Zeal The Anatomical Era in American Medicine
Anatomy Is the Charm Dissection and Medical Identity in NineteenthCentury America
A Traffic of Dead Bodies The Contested Bioethics of Anatomy in Antebellum America
Indebted to the Dissecting Knife Alternative Medicine and Anatomical Consensus in Antebellum America
The House I Live In Popular Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in Antebellum America
The Foul Altar of a Dissecting Table Anatomy Sex and Sensational Fiction at MidCentury
The Education of summary Tubbs Anatomical Dissection Minstrelsy and the Technology of SelfMaking in Postbellum America
Anatomy Out of Gear Popular Anatomy at the Margins in LateNineteenthCentury America

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About the author (2002)

Michael Sappol holds a Ph.D. in American history from Columbia University, where he was a finalist for the Bancroft Dissertation Award and a winner of the Whiting Foundation Dissertation Fellowship and the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Award. He is Curator at the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.

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